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Does Eric Garcetti Have a Big Enough Vision for L.A.?

In breaking with his predecessors, the mayor isn’t focused on one or two big priorities. Instead, he’s sweating the small stuff -- at least for now.

Earlier this year, the Los Angeles 2020 Commission, a group of distinguished civic leaders convened to consider the city’s future, published its first report. The findings were grim: Los Angeles had 1 million more residents in 2010 than in 1980, but 165,000 fewer jobs. Its poverty rate was the highest of any big city in the country. Its economy was becoming a “barbell” divided between the rich and poor, a pattern of development the panel described as “more typical of developing world cities … than a major American urban area.”

To address these problems, the commission followed up by suggesting a long list of fundamental reforms. It proposed a new office of transparency and accountability to analyze legislation that would affect city jobs. It recommended removing the mayor and city council’s ability to set water and power rates and handing that job over to an independent body with an appointed board. It called for a merger of the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach to create a regional megaport.

Most of the recommendations were in keeping with California’s tradition of progressive reform -- greater transparency, independent governing boards, a reliance on professional expertise and a distrust of politics. To make sure the city’s elected officials took notice, the 2020 Commission issued its recommendations the day before the first State of the City address by Los Angeles’ recently elected mayor, Eric Garcetti.

What happened next, though, was a startling break from the standard reform script. Garcetti rejected the commission’s ideas and approach out of hand. He didn’t want a different form of government. He wanted to repair the old one. “The challenges we face are not new,” he declared. “We do not need a new diagnosis.” What the city needed instead was “a new approach to governing.” The way to make Los Angeles safe, prosperous and livable, the mayor insisted, was to make Los Angeles the “best-run city in America.”

For generations, ambitious mayors and governors all over the country have followed a common playbook: Pick a few key priorities and push to get them through early in the first term, while political capital remains high. That was the way Garcetti’s predecessors as L.A. mayor approached the job. Both Antonio Villaraigosa and James Hahn focused immediate attention on a single cause. For Hahn, it was expanding the police department; for Villaraigosa, it was gaining control of education.

Garcetti, who is 43 years old, has taken a very different approach. He’s rejected advice to focus on one or two high-profile priorities, and he’s dismissed “artificial deadlines.” Rather, he’s taken pains to single out those who’ve done the hard work of improving government operations, like the parks and recreation employee who figured out a way to turn off air conditioning at department facilities with a simple red button. Instead of sweeping plans, Garcetti talks about performance-based budgeting and management by statistics.

What has been notably absent, in the opinion of many, is vision. That’s puzzled some longtime observers of Los Angeles politics. “I have no sense of what he is trying to do,” says political commentator Joe Mathews. “I don’t think there has been any vision or action toward a vision that I can ascertain.”

Garcetti believes that such criticisms miss the whole point of what he is doing. Far from playing “small ball,” as his critics assert, he believes he is engaged in the most wide-ranging and important of all enterprises. He says that by demonstrating that city government can handle its primary responsibilities effectively, he will be able to convince one of America’s most skeptical constituencies to trust government again.

It’s a tall order. For one thing, the legal position of mayor of Los Angeles is a famously weak one. It’s not entirely clear how much power the mayor has over government functions. “In New York, the transit district is under the mayor; the school district is under the mayor; the hospital corporation is under the mayor; everything is under one person,” notes Zev Yaroslavsky, a longtime city and Los Angeles county official. “Here it is the opposite. Health care is under the county; air quality is under the air quality district; flood control is under the flood control district.”

Not until a 1999 charter reform did L.A. mayors gain the power to hire and fire department heads. Even now, the city council exercises numerous checks on the mayor’s authority. It reviews contracts and approves zoning changes; a supermajority can take up other issues as well. As a result, real power for any mayor “depends on whether or not the city council wants to get along,” says former Mayor Hahn, now a Los Angeles County superior court judge.

There’s another problem as well. Many Angelenos seem fed up with government and are not clamoring for more. “People think of California as liberal. We’re actually very libertarian,” says Garcetti. “I have to make the case to a committed liberally voting, but libertarian, skeptical electorate, that says, ‘You tell me why I need this stuff,’ not, ‘Please get me this stuff.’”

Garcetti believes that by overhauling city management practices, he can demonstrate what government can do. His team has developed a strikingly original plan to inject the values of innovation and accountability into the city’s 36,000-person workforce. It’s an approach that depends on the cooperation of the city council, and in his first year in office, Garcetti has worked hard to secure it. He has traveled to Washington with city council members repeatedly to persuade the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to expand an L.A. River restoration project from a $400 million to a $1 billion effort. It’s all part of what Garcetti sees as a new way for public officials to lead.

“My model of leadership is that it’s such a complicated political landscape in Los Angeles and Southern California, and really in the United States and the world, that the ‘great leader in front of the army with the flag’ model doesn’t work particularly well anymore,” says Garcetti. “We definitely lionize, as we should, those great leaders in a moment of crisis, but that’s a rare leadership need and usually an unsuccessful leadership model.”

It’s an enticing thought but also one that worries some longtime observers of how cities work. “I am pretty sure he would say he’s playing the long game,” says Franklin Gilliam, the dean of public affairs at the University of California, Los Angeles. But Gilliam worries that Garcetti has avoided “the very large problems” outlined by the Los Angeles 2020 Commission. Has L.A.’s 42nd mayor found a new and more effective style of management for an electorate that distrusts government? Or is Garcetti avoiding his city’s most pressing problem, its broken job machine?

In person, Eric Garcetti is a trim, elegant man of quick wit and striking intelligence. A fluent Spanish speaker of mixed Italian, Jewish and Mexican heritage, Garcetti embodies the multiethnic makeup of Los Angeles. But while Garcetti’s grandparents came to Los Angeles after fleeing revolutions in Mexico and Russia, Garcetti himself grew up middle class in the San Fernando Valley community of Encino. His father, Gil Garcetti, was elected Los Angeles County district attorney when Eric was a student at Columbia.

Garcetti’s was not an ordinary college career. At Columbia he played jazz piano and wrote librettos; he traveled to Burma to help organize dissidents; he went to Ethiopia to combat female genital mutilation; he worked as a community activist in Harlem. He displayed political precocity as well. As a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, he organized a hunger strike against Proposition 187, the California ballot initiative intended to cut off public services to illegal immigrants -- and then phoned a Los Angeles Times journalist to give him the scoop.

Garcetti returned to Los Angeles from Oxford and got a job teaching international affairs at Occidental College. Five years later, in 2001, he was elected to the Los Angeles City Council. He was 29. In 2005, he was elected city council president, a position that he held until he announced his candidacy for mayor. His opponent in the mayoral election was city Controller Wendy Greuel. Greuel had the support of the city’s powerful public-sector unions, but at a time when voters were concerned about unfunded pension liabilities, Garcetti was able to turn that support against her. He won the June 2013 mayoral runoff election with 54 percent of the vote. A mere 409,000 people bothered to vote, the lowest total since the 1930s -- a turnout that may have contributed to Garcetti’s cautious first year in office.

Garcetti’s approach to governing is in many ways a reaction to Antonio Villaraigosa, his immediate predecessor, who took office in 2005. Possessed of a compelling back story (young man from gang-infested Boyle Heights makes good) and movie-star charisma, Villaraigosa made it clear from the start that he had big ambitions as mayor. His first and most daring goal was a bid to take control of the Los Angeles city schools. He obtained the authority from the state legislature, but his triumph proved short-lived. Courts struck down the takeover plan, handing the mayor control over a small number of failing schools instead. Other big goals were presented with great fanfare -- a million new trees and a dramatic increase in solar power, among others -- and then forgotten. Villaraigosa’s inaugural vow, that Los Angeles would become “a city of purpose,” came to be seen by many as an empty promise.

Villaraigosa was not without accomplishments. He defended funding for the Los Angeles Police Department, helping the city continue its dramatic reduction in crime. He pushed through a half-cent, 30-year sales tax in order to jump-start subway construction. What Villaraigosa never managed, though, was management. Toward the end of his second term, he essentially delegated that responsibility to hedge-fund billionaire Austin Beutner, whom he brought into his administration as first deputy mayor -- basically, the city’s chief operating officer. Beutner had some notable successes in that position. But he wasn’t able to change the culture of Los Angeles’ 36,000 employees and 46 departments, a bureaucracy that is widely maligned as wasteful and inefficient. That is precisely what Garcetti has set out to do.

The mayor’s point person for this effort is Rick Cole, his deputy mayor for budget and innovation. Cole is an unusually thoughtful and experienced quarterback. A Detroit native, he moved to Pasadena, a few miles east of Los Angeles, and in the early 1990s served as mayor. In Pasadena, Cole found a way to build a middle ground between pro- and anti-growth factions and discovered a passion for public administration in the process. He left politics and became a city manager, first in the struggling city of Azusa, then in Ventura. Soon after Garcetti won the election, Cole was asked to come up with a plan to revamp Los Angeles’ city government.

It was a subject to which Cole had given a lot of thought. As he saw it, the fundamental challenge was to introduce a culture of innovation. Cities such as Boston, Chicago, Louisville, Philadelphia and San Francisco had all attempted to do this by setting up semi-autonomous innovation shops. The most famous is Boston’s Office of New Urban Mechanics. These experiments have sought to capture the innovative spirit of private-sector start-ups by acting like private start-ups: hiring small numbers of tech-savvy, entrepreneurial youth into stand-alone positions outside of the existing bureaucracy. Much as Lockheed Martin sought to incubate innovation by creating its famous “skunk works,” a few city governments have sought to shield their innovators from bureaucracy’s stultifying effect by concentrating them in new offices focused solely on innovation. But when Cole began talking to officials in the “urban mechanic” cities, he learned that there were serious problems with isolating the innovators in this fashion. They created cool products, says Cole, “but it was not penetrating other agencies.” These efforts are supposed to spur innovation in city government as a whole. “But,” he says, “that’s more in theory than in practice.”

Garcetti wanted real innovation, spread throughout all the city departments. To get it, he and Cole came up with the idea of combining responsibility for both the budget and innovation in the same office, the theory being, as Cole puts it, “that if the shop that was in charge of innovation had leverage over $5.3 billion of resource allocation, then you couldn’t ignore the innovation people.”

The next piece was streamlining and rationalizing top management. That meant reducing the number of deputy mayors, which had fluctuated between 12 and 15 during the Villaraigosa era, down to four. The final step would be to replace the outmoded budgeting system with a new one that will allow the city to begin using performance-based budgeting. In fact, it’s been a very hard task to pull off. “Even analyzing $5.3 billion in spending programmatically has been a challenge,” Cole says. He acknowledges that efforts to implement performance-based budgeting have gotten off to a slow start. Still, he’s confident next year the budgeting and innovation reforms Garcetti is putting in place “will have a real impact.”

Others, such as Joe Mathews, are less optimistic. “He is going to integrate the computer systems -- that never goes wrong,” he says sarcastically.

Garcetti understands that internal reforms won’t be what voters look to when he is up for re-election in 2017. When it’s time to evaluate his performance, the first thing they will ask, he says, is how the economy is doing: “What’s the unemployment rate? How many residents are here? How many people study here? How happy are they? What’s your average commute? The basics.”

The second thing they will look for is evidence of concrete accomplishment. Although he hasn’t brought much public attention to his efforts, Garcetti has already had some successes. Together with California’s congressional delegation, he’s lobbied Washington effectively for additional transportation money. Besides the L.A. River project, earlier this year Los Angeles received $2.1 billion in federal funds to break ground on a new subway line to run across West Los Angeles. Mayor Villaraigosa oversaw the renovation of the L.A. airport’s international terminal; Garcetti is pushing forward with plans to renovate the city-owned airport’s other six terminals as well.

The little-known fact is that underneath Garcetti’s small-ball image lurks a mayor who dreams big. “What is most important for a mayor is did he make his city great,” he says, sounding for a moment like his predecessor. “Did he make people believe in it again? Did the world look to the city as a place they wanted to be?”

Still, he’s governed cautiously.

Earlier this summer, he effectively passed on an opportunity, albeit a politically difficult one, to address what many Angelenos see as one of the city’s most pressing problems -- the condition of its roads and sidewalks. The average L.A. resident incurs an additional $832 a year in costs as a result of poor road quality, the highest in the nation. Experts say a third of L.A.’s roads are in need of major repair. To address the issue, some city council members supported putting an initiative before voters this fall that would have raised the sales tax by half a cent. Without new funding it would be impossible to significantly increase the pace of road repairs. But a new tax was a hard sell. For one thing, it would require a two-thirds majority vote. Ultimately, Garcetti decided against pushing ahead with such a proposal. The sales tax plan was just the kind of high-profile campaign some of his predecessors would have gravitated to. But it wasn’t Garcetti’s way.

Eric Garcetti wants to win big -- he just believes that the way to do it is to bring the city’s fundamental management processes under control as a first step. Not until 2016 do most observers expect to see Garcetti himself put a controversial proposal before voters: That’s when he is expected to back an updated version of Measure R, the 2008 sales tax initiative that jump-started construction of the so-called Purple and Crenshaw subway lines. One variant proposed by mass transit advocates would impose a half-cent sales tax for 45 years. That would generate some $90 billion in new revenues for new subways, streetscapes, and so-called “active transportation” initiatives such as bike lanes and sidewalk improvements. It’s a long time to wait, but it may be a smart thing to do. Passing a sales tax in Los Angeles requires a two-thirds majority vote. To maximize their chances of getting it, elected officials in Los Angeles typically wait for a presidential election to draw younger, more progressive voters to the polls. Garcetti has as much as acknowledged that that is what he will do. Until then, he will stay focused on grinding out small wins.

“The basics is big ball these days,” he insists. “If they were so easy, they would have already gotten done.”

John is a Governing correspondent covering health care, public safety and urban affairs.
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